New Season, New Sociability

September is here and the leaves are turning brown. As Philip Larkin once wrote, “begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” A time for renewal, perhaps.

Sociability launched in 2007 in a very different environment to 2012. Back then I was part of a small but passionate movement to use “web 2.0” tools to reorganise our social systems, improve public services, connect people together and build the world we want to live in. Now civic responsibility has given way to economic reality, and unfortunately many of those that were leading this charge are now pursuing other strategies to survive in this leaner, meaner world.

But Sociability has persisted, and so too have many of the projects and conversations we were part of five years ago. Being a network has made us more resilient to change, and many of the trends we were part of in 2007 have grown rather than receded.

Three years on from our publication of Social by Social, the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and #Occupy mean everyone is now talking about the role social media is playing in social change. Four years on from starting Mindapples, the Government is now measuring our national wellbeing and there is more talk than ever about the centrality of mental health real venus factor reviews in public health. Two years on from the publication of Local by Social, the Big Society agenda and spending cuts have made collaborating with citizens a key part of the work of local authorities and public service organisations.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t expect the Olympics to be quite as good as they turned out to be - but hey, we can’t get everything right.

So as we enter our sixth year, with a revamped website and a new focus on social business and social technology, we hope that over the coming years we’ll continue to push boundaries and break new ground, and have some interesting conversations along the way.

We hope that our new projects, Lock-in TV and Do a Bit, will turn out to be as prescient as our previous innovations, and that we can continue to help our clients adapt to an increasingly turbulent but also ever-more dynamic new global market.

And most of all, we hope people will keep sharing their ideas with us and helping us learn more about the world we live in, and how to thrive in it.

Expect to see a bit more blogging from me too. I’ve missed blogging.

Happy Autumn everyone.


Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.

Who Wants to Speak?

I've been doing some work as a host/facilitator for my friends at The People Speak this month, and in timely fashion they've just released a video of their recent Who Wants to Be? event at the Unicorn Theatre. The People Speak are the funkiest events company in London. They produce democratic gameshows and innovative event technologies to get audiences genuinely engaged in discussions. Co-founder Saul Albert is also a Sociability Associate, and their work in events ties in nicely with the online projects we've been building to engage communities and unlock the power of networks.

Who Wants to Be? is their most ambitious event yet: a gameshow in which the audience pay £10 each for a ticket, and then collectively decide what to spend the money on. Watch the video to find out what we decided this time - and watch this space for future events they and Sociability are running.


Andy Gibson explains

Thought it worth reblogging this from Craig at the O'Reilly GMT blog has very kindly posted a video interview with me explaining the Mindapples project and talking a bit about how far we've got.

He caught me on the hop a bit: no time to do my hair, although I did manage to dress up a bit.

Here's the video from YouTube below. Please do reblog it, Twitter it and send it round to friends and associates, and help us get a bit more attention.


Behavioural publishing

Mindapples is coming along nicely (hence my silence here - sorry, too many blogs...), and whilst explaining the project to people I keep finding myself pushing the concept of 'behavioural publishing'. So I thought I'd better think out loud and try to explain what I mean. Mindapples asks a question that people want to know the answer to, and gives them a platform to share their answers in public. The idea is to encourage everyone to take more care of their minds, simply by publishing what people are already doing. The site doesn't help you 'do' anything in a practical sense. All it does (or at least will do once we've built a better website) is publish the behaviours that we want to see more of. And I think that, simply by publishing these behaviours, we can create more of them.

As well as helping us practically to perform tasks, the web can also give us the inspiration to do things that we didn't previously feel were possible. For example, School of Everything provides a set of tools to help people organise their learning and find new students near them. But as my friend Stowe says, "the presence of the tool implies a permission to behave in a certain way." By building a website that helps everyone become a teacher, we want to show everyone that they have something to teach. Or to use another example, Flickr doesn't help you take photos, but by publishing the photos of millions of photographers it gives us all permission to be a photographer too.

So if there is a behaviour you want to encourage - be that social care, photography, knitting or democracy - rather than leaping straight into building complex tools to help people do it, why not find where it's happening already and share it with the world? If you can rally the people together who want it to happen and tell their stories, maybe they'll build the tools for you.

SI Camp: The Movie

Social Innovation Camp: the Movie is now online, courtesy of our friends at The People Speak:

Feeling incredibly inspired now. We must do it again!

(I don't really think the truth is overrated by the way...)

Friday cartoon

I've always been a fan of visual ways to explain complex things, so I'm very happy that the School of Everything now has it's own comic strip to explain what we do. Happy Friday! Paul learns to knit

Reinventing membership

I've just been invited to become a fellow of the RSA, and the work I've been doing with them on reinventing their fellowship networks, combined with some very stimulating ideas from David Wilcox, has got me thinking again about the concept of membership. David's point is an important one: in an increasingly networked and interconnected society, membership organisations must transform themselves if they are to continue to add value to their members. The big question now is how will they need to change? When it is increasingly simple (and usually free) to join new communities and connect with like-minded people, which aspects of existing membership offerings will remain valuable, and which are becoming rapidly out of date?

Clearly the thing which has lost much of its value is access to people. Once upon a time you might pay for membership of a club to meet the people therein. Now, you meet the people first, and then consider joining. In the case of the RSA, I know many of the fellowship already, and I'm active in many of the networks discussions, so the incentive for joining seems somewhat muted. The current question that's vexing us about the RSA Networks platform is how open it should be to non-fellows: if non-fellows can join in, then how are we adding value to fellowship? But if only fellows can join the discussions, can innovation thrive in a closed network?

I like lists, so I thought I would propose the following reasons for joining a (paid-for) membership organisation:

  1. Access to resources: although information is infinitely replicable, access to physical resources is just as restricted as ever. Organisations offering access to physical space, or to events and services offered within physical space, this scarcity of availability can justify the membership fee. In other words, if only a few can get in, it's often worth paying to be one of the few.
  2. Personal prestige: if membership is awarded on some basis of exclusivity or personal merit, then becoming a member can act like a personal brand, a short-hand way of evidencing your quality. Rather like a qualification, but without all the hard work. As it becomes easier to meet new people, discriminating between them becomes more important - so this sort of membership may be a growth area in the future.
  3. Formalising the relationships: you get what you pay for, they say, and so if you really need certain levels of interaction with people in your networks, sometimes it's worth paying for someone to organise them. Organisations that can provide a solid programme of activities, opportunities, ideas and connections can charge for the work they do, and in many cases this can provide excellent value for money.
  4. Pledge support for a cause: this for me is the most interesting one. As my friend Paul Youlten says of social networks, "what's in it for me, and what of me is in it?" Increasingly we seem to be paying money to support the organisations which we've already joined. "Members" and "supporters", at least for charitable societies like the RSA, are becoming more and more blurred. So perhaps membership organisations can increase their value by becoming more open?

There are the beginnings of a very interesting debate here. David has a compementary list on his blog, and check out the comments for follow-up posts and discussions too, as well as in the RSA fellowship networks too. I hope all these locations will provide a useful space for working out some of this stuff.

In the meantime, I shall of course also be considering the RSA's very kind invitation. But as I consider "what's in it for me" in joining the RSA, I'm also noticing how much of me is already "in it". I know many of the fellows, I attend their events, I know many of the staff - and that sense of openness makes me feel much more like joining than if the doors were closed to me. Perhaps this could be an interesting social experiment - I'll let you know how I get on.

Controlling the conversations

I was revisiting some of Seth Godin's work today, and one phrase in particular got me thinking. When discussing Hallmark's e-cards website, he observed of the customers: "many of them aren't looking for Hallmark to have a voice in the conversation, so they're not listening to any news Hallmark might want to share." If the internet gives you the opportunity to have global, distributed conversations with friends, customers and strangers, then if you want to create a platform for this to happen, working out your role in those conversations strikes me as essential. So off the top of my head, here are four roles you can play as the host of online conversations:-

  1. Get out of the way: how often have you heard from the creators of Facebook? If you are providing a utility to allow other people to talk to one another, then they really don't want to be bothered by you. It's like your local pub landlord constantly butting into your conversation with an old friend to tell you about the pub quiz next week, or the special offers for Christmas parties. If people are coming to your website to talk to one another, don't get confused and think they're there to talk to you. Just concentrate on clearing the glasses and responding quickly and unobstrusively when they ask for more nibbles.
  2. Chair the meetings: sometimes, strangers and business associates need structures to support their conversations and make them more constructive. In these situations, your role as host is to provide facilitation, moderation and definition to each conversation, by setting the agendas clearly and providing tools to help people focus, interact and reach decisions. Digg, for example, limits the conversation topic to "news", and then to particular subject threads, and also provides users with systems to decide which stories are most important, and to moderate disagreements to keep things constructive. Sometimes, as on discussion forums, this is about direct interventions in the conversations; but often it's just about framing the meeting right and giving people enough post-its.
  3. Join in: in some cases, particularly in private communities like local societies or the fellowship network Sociability are developing for the RSA, the people running the platform actually have a great deal to contribute to the conversation themselves. Charities and membership organisations in particular usually have paid officials who lead the organisation's activity in a particular area, who carry authority in any conversation with members and volunteers because of their expertise and their access to organisational resources. But is this the same as the users wanting to hear from the organisation? Of course not. It's not about the organisation at all, it's about the people in it. The best way for an organisation to join in conversations is for each staffmember to participate as an individual, just like everybody else. Drop the corporate front and gain the ability to condition the space through your own actions and add value to the community, and your organisation. Stop treating your staff as separate from your online community, and set them free to join in and meet their customers.
  4. Deus ex machina: at the end of many badly-constructed plays, movies and novels, the deficiencies of the plot are resolved by the sudden introduction of an improbable new element, the Deus ex machina who descends from above, halting the action and setting things right. Of course there are times when you need to talk to everyone who uses your website, the "time Gentlemen please" of your distributed local pub. But just remember that, when you do, all the other conversations will stop as your booming voice echoes across the stage. And when you do that, you better be saying something worth hearing.

The challenge, of course, is how do you tell (and sell) things to the community if you can't broadcast corporate messages to them. That's the challenge of course, and not a straightforward one. But if you can build a community of people around particular topics, a shared vision or a pleasant social environment, then you are closer to your customers than ever before. So, perhaps the next step after that is to ask them what they need?

The Future 500

I'm in the Observer today, as one of the Future 500 "rising stars" to watch for the future. Well, strictly speaking I'm in the "next 400" (under Science and Innovation) for those who didn't get a full biog in the main supplement, but it's still very flattering to be part of a list that includes such impressive names as Geoff Mulgan, Joanna Shields, Richard Reed and Seedcamp's own Ryan Notz. My mum is very proud of me, and I'd like to thank the Academy etc. etc.

Interestingly, inclusion in the Future 500 comes with access to a network website where I can interact with other "ones to watch" online, meet, swap ideas and plot world domination together. The "exclusive network" is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon these days, and something which I'm increasingly being asked about as a consultant. Harnessing the power of a community to take action and solve problems is becoming a key theme in my work. But it also prompts me to ask: in an age of endless networking and connectivity, are these "gated communities" now more valuable than the open networks?

The work I've been doing for the RSA also raised this issue of "openness", which is a particularly thorny issue for a members club intent on fostering innovation. My natural inclination is towards being open and collaborative because I believe that is where new ideas are born, so is joining a members' club a betrayal of those principles? And how does money fit into all this?

There is undeniable value in being part of something that is only for a privileged few. In an age where much information is freely available, people invest huge amounts of time and money on getting the latest, up-to-the-minute, exclusive information on everything from new music to financial news. In fact, being the first person to circulate something new has become so integral to our social self-expression that marketeers are tapping into it to sell chocolate. But in the midst of all these overlapping networks and communities, are new forms of social exclusion being created?

So, how can the internet retain the open, collaborative spirit which made it great, whilst still tapping into the power and possibilities of the esoteric web? And is who you know, and what they can tell you (before it hits the mainstream), actually the new social currency? Are we all cultural insider traders now?

I'll ask the Future 500. And then, if you're good, I might tell you...


Last week I gave a talk on peer learning with Ben Vershbow of NY think-tank if:book. He's been doing some fabulous things in collaborative reading, which I think could have big implications for the way blogs and discussion forums interact. If:book have developed a hack for the Wordpress platform which places comments to the right of each paragraph of a blog post. It's based on marginalia in old-fashioned academic texts and is intended to allow collaborative annotation of academic texts - but it's such a simple tool that I think it's got much wider implications.

We've been playing with an installation of the system based on the talk we gave at, with some success.

The software itself is available for free at I strongly urge you to check it out and put it to good use!

Everything, Now!

The School of Everything is now open to the public. We officially opened our doors at Minibar last night, and although it's still early days there's lots in there to help people advertise classes and find teachers near them. It's a community site so please do sign up and join us, even if you don't want to teach yourself. At the very least you should meet some interesting people.

Take a look now at, or say hello to us at hello[at]